The Leader's Five-Fold Secret to Successful Meetings


Great leaders know how to have great meetings. Mark Rutland shares his secrets to successful meetings.

"Oh, no," she moaned as if she were staring at the gallows.

"What?" I asked. "What's wrong?"

We were fellow teachers at a small, elite, private academy in Washington, D.C. Not yet credentialed, still in college in fact, I was part-time and therefore free of all the extra duties and committees required of the full-time faculty. She was easily my mother's age, perhaps older. I'm sure she saw me more as another student than as the "colleague" I fancied myself.

"Oh, it's another meeting. The principal has called another meeting of a committee I serve on. I'm thinking of faking a migraine. Will you back me up?"

"Is it as horrible as all that?"

"It's worse! It's excruciating. They go on and on and on and they accomplish nothing. He just enjoys being the center of attention. I'd rather actually HAVE a migraine."

It was years later, many meetings later, many excruciating meetings later before I understood both her pain and the real problem. When people say meetings are horrible what they really mean is horrible meetings are horrible. I have sat through meetings where I ached to scream. I have also been in meetings that were efficiently conducted, yielded results and proved crucial to setting and meeting team goals. Actually after such meetings I have sensed, not anger and frustration, but enthusiasm, good humor and esprit de corps.

I have been able to identify five keys to conducting a productive and, dare I say it, enjoyable meeting.

Every leader will at some point be required to meet with team members. Here is the five-fold foundation for meetings that your team will love and not dread. The successful meeting will be:

  1. Purposeful: With the exception of something such as an annual planning retreat, meetings people love are focused on limited subjects. If possible, tell your team ahead of time what that purpose is, and inform them to be prepared for the meeting and what you expect them to bring to it. Then keep the meeting on track. The leader has to be the air traffic controller that protects the meeting and the rest of the team from the chronic rabbit hunter on board. Be firm. Stop the chase early and firmly. "That's not the point of this discussion and let's hold that for another time." Your most productive team members will be grateful AND less dubious about future meetings.
  2. Brief: Just as staying on track is important, so is getting to the destination as quickly as possible. Keep pushing toward that resolution, that answer, that needed solution. Your best players have things on their own desks that need their attention. You or someone else grandstanding and dragging out the meeting unnecessarily is an irritating distraction to your best performers.
  3. Clear: Clarify the point of the meeting. Avoid vagueness as much as possible. We are here to decide how we handle such and such. We need to make a decision on these three options. We need to revisit the budget on this particular line item.  Be as specific as possible. Frame the question at the beginning then guide the discussion. At the last synthesize the apparent decision. Seek clarity in all these things.
  4. Safe: Confrontation will happen, indeed needs to happen from time to time in a high-octane team. However, it is the leader's responsibility to make sure that those confrontations are not personal. You are conducting the meeting; you are also its senior policeman. Let your team duke it out over numbers, stats, and interpretation/application of information. But never allow personal acrimony. Your own attitude will set the tone. Can you be argued with? Can your logic be challenged? If you are vertically dismissive and condescending with others the meeting will never be safe horizontally.
  5. Final: Make the decision in the meeting rather than in meetings after the meeting. Beware the team member who waits till later in a meeting alone with you to say what should have been said with everyone present. I certainly don't mean that the decision can't be changed. But get everyone back together and reopen the issue in the light of new information.  This avoids triangulation and manipulation. It also avoids making you look weak and easily controlled.

I think back to that teacher's dread of the upcoming meeting and I wonder if the principal had any idea how she felt. Or if he even cared. His meetings needn't have been migraine-inducing nightmares. And neither must ours. Meetings will sometimes be necessary. Great leaders know how to have great meetings.

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